Obituary: Julius Silverman

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The Independent Online
From the day he arrived in the House of Commons, Julius Silverman was an issue politician.

The first few sentences of a maiden speech often reveal a good deal about a person. Silverman began his maiden, on 13 November 1945, with a story.

Some months previously a woman had come to see him on his election to Parliament. She was a widow with three children, and her total income amounted to pounds 3 15s per week. She was occupying two furnished rooms with the joint use of the usual household conveniences, for which she was paying a total rent of pounds 2 5s per week. It was safe to say that the value of the furniture in these rooms at 1939 prices was not more than about pounds 40 or pounds 45.

Silverman suggested to her that this was a suitable case to be reported to the Public Health Committee for action under Section 10 of the 1920 Act. She responded, "No, because if you do that, I shall simply be thrown out on the street." The woman told Silverman she had spent many weeks going from place to place trying to find a landlord willing to take her children in, and she did not want to make the same interminable round again.

For the next 38 years in the House of Commons, and in the great city of Birmingham, where he was thrilled to be made a Freeman in 1982, Silverman effectively championed such people. Those were days when senior ministers had time - and courtesy, and the respect for Parliament - to wait after they had spoken and listen to what backbenchers said, rather than trundling off to their department offices and television studios. Aneurin Bevan, whose "Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Bill" Second Reading it was, warmly congratulated Silverman on his use of examples to illustrate general points. Unfortunately Silverman's diffident delivery did not match his well-informed content.

There was then little of the sycophantic guff from goverment backbenchers that is all too often the currency these days. Silverman looked Bevan full in the eye in what is now the House of Lords Chamber and presented a case of a different nature. The tenant was paying pounds 2 15s for a furnished house under a written agreement in 1943. In 1944 the rent was increased to pounds 3, and in 1945 to pounds 3 5s. The furniture was of moderate value, not too good and not too bad. In May 1945, the landlady decided that she wanted somewhere to live, so she came back to the house, and occupied half of it herself, in consideration of which the rent was reduced to pounds 2 15s per week. Again, the tenant did not want to do anything about it, because there was a family of five, and they had nowhere to go, and no prospects of getting anywhere.

Few newcomers would have had Silverman's courage, five minutes into his maiden speech, to say that he wanted to ask Aneurin Bevan "what comfort, what consolation, and what aid" would his Bill bring to such people in the circumstances he described? Silverman told Bevan bluntly that, without security of tenure, the Bill had no teeth. "It is no use telling the tenant, as the Minister [Bevan] is suggesting, that, if he is turned out, the next tenant will get the benefit of reduced rent." Bevan was offering his protection, and, unless people were prepared to report exorbitant rents to the authorities, Bevan's Bill, and one of the Labour government's flagships, would not go very far.

In the mid-1950s, Silverman became arguably the most authoritative of all opposition critics on slum landlords and desperate housing situations. He did not overegg a pudding. His cases stood on their own merits. He attacked the Conservatives for using the widow and the orphan who owns stocks and shares, or slum property, as an argument for exacting a higher rate of compensation for all stockholders or property owners. If the Conservatives were to accept the principle of a means test in respect of compensation, they would find a good deal of Labour support.

Silverman addressed the problems of the large local authorities. In the autumn of 1955, his own city of Birmingham had 62,000 applicants on its ordinary housing register, and it was estimated that of these at least 44,000 families were in acute housing need. Many had been on the register for 10 years or more.

Along with the Shadow Housing Minister, George Lindgren, Silverman put the case for municipal building in the inner city area, and with a weight of experience was able to torment Duncan Sandys, and his Housing Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Bill Deedes, then an MP but later Editor of the Daily Telegraph. Dame Evelyn Sharpe told Dick Crossman in 1964 that in her opinion, as Permanent Secretary, Silverman knew more about municipal housing problems than any other member of the House of Commons. Faced with the infinite complexity of the Labour government's Rent Bills, Crossman often reflected that he would have liked the "clever Julius" as a ministerial colleague in the Ministry of Housing.

Alas, the timing was all wrong for Silverman, and timing in politics is everything. In 1945-51 he was new to Parliament and, I was told (by Crossman and Ian Mikardo), did not make the ministerial rank - much less numerous than today - because "Clem, other things being equal, did not promote members of the `chosen race' to ministerial position, when there were old Haileybury boys and the like pestering for advancement."

Silverman's father, Nathan, had come from the Minsk area of Russia, as a result of the Pogrom. Russian was spoken at home, and throughout his life Silverman was active in societies of all kinds promoting friendship with the Russian people. A fellow-traveller he certainly was not.

Parliament has had many a good chess player - Michael Foot, Bob Mitchell, Brian Walden come to mind - sitting of an evening in the chess room, under the pictures of Hampden and Pym, and a chess-playing photograph of Balfour and Bonar Law. But none of us was in the same league as Julius Silverman, a grandmaster by status. His deployment of variations on the Caro-Kann Defence were formidable. Botvinnik and Smyslov he counted as friends.

Disadvantaged by lack of English at home - being second to Russian and Yiddish - and by the fact that so many of the teachers at the Central High School in Leeds were away being killed with the Green Howards or the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, Silverman left at the age of 16 to become a warehouseman and family provider. Jewish application and night-school study enabled him to enter Gray's Inn at the age of 23 and to be called to the Bar in 1931.

In 1935, he was selected as Labour candidate for Moseley, a huge consistuency of 101,169 electors, and lost to P.J.H. Hannan by 26,342 votes.

His long association with India had begun before the Second World War when, as a young councillor in Birmingham, he represented Indian communities in his ward. In January 1946 Silverman asked the Under-Secretary of State for India why the weekly Urdu newspaper National Congress, formerly published in the Punjab, had not been allowed to resume publication. Egregiously, Arthur Henderson, then Minister, told him that permission to resume publication, suspended in August 1942, was refused on account of the newsprint supply position. Acerbically - in his younger days his contemporaries recall him as very acerbic - Silverman asked Henderson, "Did this newspaper not have a quota before its suppression and why is it not allowed to assume a proportion of that quota at present?" Henderson was bowled middle stump, among the first of many ministerial wickets to fall to Silverman's well-flighted questions.

Press freedom in India before Independence was one of Silverman's causes. Why on 10 December 1945, he demanded, was security levied against the daily newspaper National Herald? This activity was greatly appreciated by the Nehru dynasty.

In 1965, the late Colin Jackson MP, my wife and I were invited to visit Mrs Indira Gandhi in Delhi. When we asked about her British friends, Julius Silverman topped the list. Her father, Pandit Nehru, knew him as a friend in times of adversity. Another friend was another Parliamentary Labour candidate, Krishna Menon. For 20 years, 1927-47, he had been the prominent secretary of the Indian League, of which he became President in 1947. Three years before Menon's death in 1974, Silverman himself became Chairman of the Indian League. And a large array of MPs have cause to be grateful to Silverman for sowing the seed in the mind of the High Commission that they should have a quarterly "Curry Club Lunch" for Parliamentarians at India House, presenting a valuable opportunity for a meeting of minds with officials at the High Commission, to say nothing of the superlative buffet curries which give joy to the legislators' stomachs.

It is an indication of the esteem in which Silverman was held that he was asked in the mid-1980s to contribute to the Centenary History of the Indian National Congress.

In 1974-76, I sat on the European Secondary Legislation (Scrutiny) Committee under Silverman's chairmanship. As a chairman, kind, businesslike (and superbly well-prepared and relevant), he was in the Labour superleague class of Ian Mikardo and Harold Wilson in his Public Accounts Days. Thirty years earlier, in May 1946, Silverman had visited Germany, and reported back to the Commons in the major Foreign Affairs Debate of 4/5 June 1946, opened by Ernest Bevin, holding the House for 1 hour and 34 minutes, followed by R.A. Butler, in which Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee spoke on the second day.

Silverman complained that we had 26,000 government officials running German industry, "an industry which the Germans ought to be running themselves, and which they are running on the other side of the Elbe". What, asked Silverman, was the mentality of our people who are running it? They were men, in his view, with high intelligence and a good deal of enthusiasm and interest, but were trying to solve the problems by applying methods of British municipal government to Germany. For example, non- political civil servants were one of the traditions of municipal government in Britain.

In Germany it was fatal, because the non-political civil servant was a reactionary and a Nazi. Before the impasse between West and East was active and complete, in June 1946, Silverman argued the case for making Germany a single workable economic whole by approximating the political system of the world on both sides. The alternative, as he saw it, in 1946 was political catastrophe on both sides. It was such sentiment that caused some of his colleagues to suspect that he was a fellow-traveller. Actually he was a profoundly thoughtful human being, an increasingly rare species in today's politics, who over 40 years later was quite simply overjoyed when the Berlin Wall tumbled.

In 1945, he had won Erdington by 12,000 votes. In 1955 most of Erdington became Aston; in 1959 and 1964, Silverman just held off Anthony Beaumont Dark, later to become MP for Selly Oak. In 1974, Aston reverted to Erdington, and at his last election in 1979, Silverman squeezed home by 680 votes or a 1.6 per cent margin.

Silverman's contributions to rational discussion on housing, India, and the evolving situation between East and West were of greater significance than those of most Ministers of the Crown.

He was 54 when he married Eva Price, to whom he was devoted, and who gave him devoted care in his twilight years.

Julius Silverman, warehouseman, barrister-at-law and politician: born Leeds 8 December 1905; MP (Labour) for Birmingham, Erdington 1945-55, 1974-83, for Birmingham, Aston 1955-74; married 1959 Eva Price; died 21 September 1996.